By Darl Black
Shenango slabs for Ken Smith who enjoys fishing a shoreline laydown in the spring.
It’s March and the spring crappie bite is starting to happen in the South…but not so much in northern states.
Across New England, the Great Lake states and upper Mid-West, lakes are still ice-covered in early March. Depending on how far north a lake is located, ice-out may not occur until mid-April.
When ice cover finally departs northern lakes, anxious anglers search for crappies in shallow backwater bays, marina basins, sloughs and canals off the main lake. “The crappies are running” is a term bantered about, leading to a belief among some fishermen that this is a spawning run. It is not.
With ice-out water temperature in the lower 40s, these forays into extremely shallow water are associated with food – not spawning. Crappies are simply following minnows into the warming shallows. Within a couple weeks, crappies will have abandoned these areas, falling back to deeper water to await warmer water for spawning.
According to fisheries literature, an actual pre-spawn movement does not kick into gear until surface temperatures reach about 50 degrees, with spawning starting once temperatures have stabilized above 60 degrees.
Dipping jigs in an emerging pad bed can give fun, exciting action from spawning crappies.
In northwestern Pennsylvania, ice generally goes out in the latter part of March but anglers rarely see 50 degree water until sometime in late April. Predicting a precise timetable for pre-spawn movement is an impossible task due to unpredictable spring weather patterns from year to year.
Crappie guru Ken Smith closely follows the late spring activities on the area’s major reservoirs: Pymatuning Lake and Shenango River Lake in northwestern Pennsylvania as well as Mosquito Lake in northeastern Ohio. Typically the first week of May he discovers crappies staging around submerged cover on the first drop-off near spawn areas. Within a week or so crappies move to shoreline wood.
“As long as I downsize my bait, I find pre-spawn crappies will smack jigs aggressively. However, if you go after them with bigger baits you use in the summer, you may go home empty handed,” explains Ken. “I downsize to a 1/32-ounce jighead with a 1-3/4″ Lunker City Fin-S-Shad.”
In terms of lure color, Ken says each lake he fishes seems to have a special color preferred by crappies. “My best color on Pymatuning is motor oil. On the stained waters of Shenango it is black & chartreuse, and on Mosquito it is solid chartreuse.”
Dave Lefebre fishes several natural lakes in the region as well as Pymatuning. “Once water warms sufficiently, crappies quickly move into canal channels and shallow bays of natural lakes, holding on emerging vegetation or on stick-ups such as those around beaver lodges. However on Pymatuning, I find pre-spawn crappies jammed on hard-bottom or rocky areas at the mouths of bays in five to eight feet of water; on a good day my partner and I may catch 100 crappies casting a Yamamoto 2″ Crappie Grub with a swim-tail in a minnow color or clear/ flake color.”
Technically, once a nest is fanned by the male and water temperature remains stable, the actual spawn lasts only long enough for ripe female crappies to drop eggs and males to fertilize the eggs – typically just a couple days. Males remain to guard the nest while females retreat to deeper water. However, from an angler’s viewpoint, nest-guarding males are regarded as spawning or bedding fish rather than post-spawn fish.
“On reservoirs, the earliest I’ve noticed bedded crappies is the second week in May,” notes Ken. “On Shenango, spawning crappies favor wood cover – such as laydowns – in five of water or less. Fish spawn in waves at slightly different times in different areas of a lake. I continue to encounter bedding crappies through early June.”
Ken selects a 1-1/2″ twister-style grub on a 1/16-ounce jighead to swim slowly through a group of bedding crappies. “Sometimes I suspend the jig below a bobber. But the retrieve is the same – slow and steady.”
On small natural lakes, Dave believes crappies spawn earlier than on larger reservoirs. “In the clear water of canal channels, I have observed crappies on beds as early as the last week of April or first days of May just as pad shoots break the surface. The crappies have turned dark indicating they are ready to spawn.”
On many of the same natural lakes which Dave targets, I find spawning crappie in reed beds and along the inside edge of a weedbed. The sequence of spawn on natural lakes goes like this: bedding occurs first in the canals, then along the main lake shoreline, and finally on weed-capped offshore humps. The offshore spawn extends into June.
Whether in a reservoir or natural lake, black crappies begin to spawn before white crappies. Black crappies also bed shallower than whites, and always around wood and brushy cover, or in emerging pad beds. On area lakes, most white crappies spawn further offshore in 4 to 6 feet of water.
For bedding fish, I prefer a Bobby Garland Baby Shad suspended below a bobber so I can fish it super slow if needed.
Dave always employs a 1-1/2″ tube suspended 12 to 24 inches below a bobber or cork. He makes long casts and pops the cork all the way back to the boat.
“The rest of the year, I prefer baitfish colors or muted hues for my crappie soft plastics, but during the spawn I always go bright – including combinations of chartreuse, pink and orange,” explains Dave. “Spawning crappies are not aggressively feeding but they strike to defend their beds against intruders, so I offer them something that is threatening.”
Attempting to identify the post-spawn really gets a little tricky. When crappies leave the beds – whether females or males – they go into a post-spawn recuperation period. However, immediate post-spawn crappies are in an extremely negative mood. Generally they do not react to a lure presentation.
On large reservoirs like Pymatuning, there will be pre-spawn, bedding and post-spawn crappies at the same time in different areas of the lake, so the advice from local experts is to continue seeking groups of spawning crappies (or perhaps pre-spawn crappies) until such time that the early spawning fish have recuperated sufficiently to begin active feeding.
The first place I check for recuperated post-spawn crappies is the outside weedline. This is the time to switch to a slightly bigger soft plastic and employ a bit faster retrieve. Two of my favorite post-spawn-into-early-summer baits include a Charlie Brewer Crappie Slider on a 1/8-ounce Slider Head and a Lunker City 2-1/2″ Fin-S Fish on a Road Runner head.
If you are in a northern tier state, March is a bit too early to get in on the spawning bite – but now is the time to prepare because May and June are just around the corner!